It happened today - April 13, 2016
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZTZRtRFkvk Hallelujah! It’s a great word. I don’t care if you’re religious or not. If you’re really really happy, if something truly great just happened to you, you’re likely to shout it. Or sing it. Which you can do because of Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio complete with Hallelujah chorus, first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742.
It’s not a battle or a coronation or an assassination or that sort of thing. And those do matter: they change history, shape people’s lives and get written about in this series. But if you’d been in the Fishamble Street hall (yes, I’m afraid that was its name) on that April 13, you’d have stood staring, awestruck, transported, knowing something truly and genuinely new had come into the world to stay, something good that would give joy and satisfaction for as long as men and women had ears.
Creativity is a remarkable thing. It is very different in different people. And when it comes to music I don’t have it. Indeed, violins flee at my approach.
The closest I have ever come, and it’s not very close, is that as a writer and speaker I have sometimes turned what I thought was a good phrase, either laboriously in my study by revising, weighing, testing, deleting and rephrasing, or spontaneously at a podium or a keyboard in ways that could not be improved.
It’s a very small thing, to be sure. If I may quote Chesterton, and I’m the author so I may, he once said “I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it.” And yes, sometimes I think my phrases apt simply because they are mine. But other times they really are. The world actually became very slightly richer, fuller, and more elevated because something sprang like Athena from my forehead.
It’s an odd feeling, in retrospect, to hear or read your own words and go yeah, that actually was a moment when something worthwhile came into existence that wasn’t there before. (I was suddenly struck on this point, the other day, listening to classic Rolling Stones, by an image of Keith Richards listening to a solo he himself performed live in concert half a century ago and thinking every note is absolutely perfect and those were my fingers on the string making it happen.) But obviously I never experienced anything remotely like what Handel must have felt suddenly hearing the Hallelujah chorus in his mind, something never before experienced, and writing it down and then the world could hear it. Again and again.
Or Beethoven with the choral finale to his last symphony. I don’t actually know whether he welded it together note by note or whether he was walking along thinking of something else and suddenly there it was in his brain, sublime, undeniable, brilliant. New. And permanent. And right.
In some sense something discovered rather than invented. Not to deny the creativity, or the hard work behind the creativity. And if Handel had been run down by an oxcart there is no reason to believe someone else would one day have written the Messiah. And yet the familiar, magnificent tune isn’t something imported into or forced on the universe. It is something liberated from the underlying flux of possibility, something at once brilliantly free and entirely logical. Something wonderful and affirmative. It’s like making a truly outstanding move in chess, a game that is relentlessly logical and yet does allow for surprising creativity. Except a lot more so, and bringing joy to a lot more people
Of course. Now just because you say “Hallelujah” doesn’t mean you or your emotional excitement are necessarily good, let alone holy. I cherish, in the sarcastic “what a piece of work is man” sense, the story of a Colorado church that split over the spelling of “hallelujah” versus “alleluia” so bitterly that one guy was nearly brained by a rock thrown through his window with a one-word note attached: “hallelujah!” I cannot imagine that God, or Handel, would be amused.
The Hallelujah chorus is another matter. Or rather, transcending of matter. A physical man, using paper and ink, writes little marks symbolizing some odd electrochemical process within his brain made of meat so others, sustained by putting bits of chopped up plant and animal in the hole under their noses (I have never been able to locate the source of this characterization but I do not believe I invented it), can go into a place with Fishamble in its name and vibrate bits of metal, wood and catgut so that something so sublime, magical, unforeseen and right emerges that we want to shout “Hallelujah!”
And it lingers. It stays with us. It can be performed again and again. It’s a daily miracle of creativity defying the claim that the universe is bleak and hostile, waiting since before time began to be born spontaneously and given to us forever on April 13 1742.